Locally sourced food inspires chef _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ANGELA MAJOR -- Mary Koehler is a chef at Nino's on Bluebonnet Boulevard. Koehler is competing in next week's Slow Food Fall Heat, a competition between local chefs to make a dish that will pair well with a local beer.

Mary Koehler tried working in an office for a couple of years, but it didn’t hold her interest much.

“I was incredibly bored,” she said, and she likely got some of her frustration out by joining the Red Stick Roller Derby, which is where she met Elton Hyndman, chef and owner of Southside’s Nino’s Italian Restaurant and Oscar’s Gourmet Pizza Joint, and his wife, Randee.

It was sitting at their table with other members of the team that she had the first taste of what would become her passion — cooking.

“He said if I ever got tired of my desk job, I should think about cooking,” she said. It didn’t take her long to see things his way.

“I haven’t worked a day in my life since,” she said.

Koehler is one of eight local cooks who will compete in a friendly competition cooked up by Slow Food Baton Rouge, a group dedicated to bringing more farm-fresh, locally grown food to kitchens, both commercial and private, all over the city.

Called the Slow Food Fall Heat, the fundraiser for Slow Food BR’s farm-to-table programs will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m Sunday at the LSU Agricultural Center Botanic Gardens at Burden, said Carl Motsenbocker, of the organization.

“It’s a lot of fun. Part of the challenge is using as many fresh, local ingredients as possible,” he said.

Hammond’s Gnarly Barley Brewing Co. has chosen an IPA that chefs must pair with the food as part of the contest.

Koehler said working with straight-from-the-field local food makes creating great-tasting food much less of a challenge.

The general idea is to come up with a dish that will pair well with the brew, and while her recipe is top secret at the moment, Koehler did say her dishes may have something to do with the theme of fall and football season. Or, maybe not.

The only way to find out for sure is to attend.

“There will be a People’s Choice Award,” Motsenbocker said, “so everyone who attends will be a judge.”

To Koehler, there’s no real difference between good food and happiness, and that’s a point of view she’s only too happy to share, plate by plate. Though her mom’s cooking was great, she said, “We were Midwesterners in the South. I guess you could say I was culinarily sheltered,” she said with a laugh.

Foodwise, the Hyndmans were her first mentors, opening up a world of flavor. About six months after their conversation about changing careers, she said, she jumped.

She moved to Seattle and got a job working at a catering company owned by Wolfgang Puck. She worked her way down the West Coast to Los Angeles and learned a lot about cooking. But eventually, she got homesick. That’s when she came knocking on the door at Nino’s.

Inspiration isn’t hard to find, she said. She recalled a particularly vivid memory of ordering sea scallops at a restaurant when she got back to Louisiana.

“Sea scallops are usually large and impressive visually,” she said. “And I can’t remember anything else, other than being conscious of the sear on the scallops. It was just perfect. And every time I cook scallops, I strive to make the sear that perfect,” she said.

Koehler is just one of many talented cooks who will be competing at the Fall Heat.

Tickets are $75 per adult, $50 for students. Children are welcome. For information, visit slowfoodbr.org/slow-food-fall-heat.